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The Ravages of War Related PTSD Spread to Partners and Children of US Soldiers

The heartbreaking story of a family's secondary trauma.

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THE VINESES' WEDDING ALBUM is gorgeous, leather-bound, older and dustier than you might expect given their youth. Brannan is 32 now, but in her portraits with the big white dress and lacy veil she's not even old enough to drink. There were 500 people at the ceremony. Even the mayor was there. And there's Caleb, slim, in a tux, three years older than Brannan at 22, in every single picture just about the smilingest motherfucker you've ever seen, in a shy kind of way.

Now, he's rounder, heavier, bearded, and long-haired, obviously tough even if he weren't prone to wearing a COMBAT INFANTRYMAN cap, but still not the guy you picture when you see his "Disabled Veteran" license plates. Not the old 'Nam guy with a limp, or maybe the young legless Iraq survivor, that you'd expect.

It's kind of hard to understand Caleb's injuries. Even doctors can't say for sure exactly why he has flashbacks, why he could be standing in a bookstore when all of a sudden he's sure he's in Ramadi, the pictures in his brain disorienting him among the stacks, which could turn from stacks to rows of rooftops that need to be scanned for snipers. Sometimes he starts yelling, and often he doesn't remember anything about it later. They don't know exactly why it comes to him in dreams, and why especially that time he picked up the pieces of Baghdad bombing victims and that lady who appeared to have thrown herself on top of her child to save him only to find the child dead underneath torments him when he's sleeping, and sometimes awake. They don't know why some other guys in his unit who did and saw the same stuff that Caleb did and saw are fine but Caleb is so sensitive to light, why he can't just watch the news like a regular person without feeling as if he might catch fire. Some hypotheses for why PTSD only tortures some trauma victims blame it on  unhappily coded proteins, or a  misbehaving amygdala. Family history, or maybe previous trauma.

Whatever is happening to Caleb, it's as old as war itself. The ancient historian Herodotus told of Greeks being honorably dismissed  for being "out of heart" and "unwilling to encounter danger." Civil War doctors, who couldn't think of any other thing that might be unpleasant about fighting the Civil War but homesickness, diagnosed thousands with  "nostalgia." Later, it was deemed  "irritable heart." In World War I it was called "shell shock." In World War II, "battle fatigue." It wasn't an official diagnosis until 1980, when Post Traumatic Stress Disorder made its debut in psychiatry's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, uniting a flood of Vietnam vets suffering persistent psych issues with traumatized civilians—previously assigned labels like "accident neurosis" and "post-rape syndrome"—onto the same page of the DSM-III.

But whatever people have called it, they haven't been likely to grasp or respect it. In 1943, when Lt. General George S. Patton met an American soldier at an Italian hospital recovering from "nerves," Patton  slapped him and called him a coward. In 2006, the British Ministry of Defence  pardoned some 300 soldiers who had been executed for cowardice and desertion during World War I, having concluded that many were probably just crippled by PTSD.

Granted, diagnosing PTSD is a tricky thing. The result of a malfunctioning nervous system that fails to normalize after trauma and instead perpetrates memories and  misfires life-or-death stress for no practical reason, it comes in a couple of varieties, various complexities, has causes ranging from one lightning-fast event to drawn-out terrors or patterns of abuse—in soldiers, the incidence of PTSD goes up with the  number of tours and amount of combatexperienced. As with most psychiatric diagnoses, there are no measurable objective biological characteristics to identify it. Doctors have to go on hunches and symptomology rather than definitive evidence. And the fact that the science hasn't fully caught up with the suffering, that Caleb can't point to something provably, biologically ruining his life, just makes him feel worse. It's invalidating. Even if something is certainly wrong—even if a couple of times he has inadvisably downed his medication with a lot of booze, admitting to Brannan that he doesn't care if he dies; even if he once came closer to striking her than she ever, ever, ever could have imagined before he went to war­—Caleb knows that a person whose problem is essentially that he can't adapt to peacetime Alabama sounds, to many, like a pussy.

 
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